Voices from the Neighborhood…
By Ann Sides
When Letitia and Jeannette Fields were little girls, they skipped through meadows of trees and wildflowers where the Cameron Village shopping center now stands. Letitia remembers Bedford Avenue surfaced with hard clay and stones. Jeannette recalls a sawmill east of Oberlin road, and a stand of Christmas trees where apartments and shops exist now. Most of all, however, the octogenarian sisters remember the vibrant community spirit of Oberlin Village, a historic African-American settlement where children were brought up to value hard work, education, and family relationships.
The home in which Letitia Fields Nedab and Jeannette Fields Harris grew up still stands, at 802 Oberlin Road. From the wide, shady veranda of this attractive, 19th Century house, Letitia and Jeannette went on to careers as teachers and administrators in the Washington D.C., public schools, but never forgot their roots in Raleigh.
“Oberlin Village was founded by freed slaves just after the Civil War,” Jeannette explains. “Our forefathers had a great concern for education, and we had a school here in Oberlin Village in 1869, seven years before the first public school opened in Raleigh.”
The residents, Letitia adds, opted to name their community and its main street “Oberlin,” because the Ohio college welcomed former slaves, and one of the village founders, James E. Harris, was a graduate. On a large tract of land on Parker Street, Rev. M.L. Latta established an orphanage and vocational school called “Latta University” in 1892. Dr. James E. Shepard, an Oberlin Village native and relative of the Fields sisters’ mother, founded North Carolina Central University in 1909.
In the 30’s and 40’s when the Fields sisters were growing up, Oberlin Village was a thickly-settled, self-contained, African-American community. The 12 block area comprised approximately 1,000 people in 175 homes, plus stores, workshops, churches, and a cemetery. However, westward growth of Raleigh and its commerce, particularly the Cameron Village shopping center, began to eat into the boundaries of the Oberlin community in the 1950’s. Desegregation brought more housing choices for blacks. Young people went off to college, and didn’t return to Oberlin Village, Letitia says, “not realizing its value.”
Oberlin Village is now a subdivision at the northeast corner of the
University Park Homeowner’s Association boundaries, and has a diverse population of students, renters, and homeowners. Descendants of the freedmen who settled the area still remain in the neighborhood, but their numbers are dwindling.
The Fields sisters, after successful careers as educators, returned
to Raleigh and joined community efforts to preserve Oberlin Village’s history and character. The neighborhood’s fight against a megadevelopment derisively called “Coker Towers” at Oberlin and Wade succeeded, but Letitia frets that the current building, Oberlin Court, encroaches the cemetery where her ancestors are buried. The sisters also point to efforts to preserve the cemetery and the Latta school property as examples of community activism; an alliance between the original families and newer arrivals.
“The newcomers, fortunately, have gotten into the nostalgia
mode,” Jeannette says, “and want to keep it as a walking neighborhood. I’d like them to experience the same warm feeling we experienced, growing up here.”
Pictured above: Sisters Letitia Nedab, Jeannette Harris, and Mary Haywood